Europe should pool its defence resources

"To transform our militaries into more flexible, mobile forces, and to enable them to address the new threats, more resources for defence and more effective use of resources are necessary." Solana in European Security Strategy (nl)

(Javier Solana, Financial Times, 23 May 2005)

Within the space of five years, the European Union has moved from rhetoric to action in matters of security and defence. Operational capacities have been planned, deployed and tested. Military missions have been launched in the Balkans and in Africa. More than 50,000 troops from EU member states are deployed on peacekeeping missions. These actions are guided by a European security strategy that seeks a secure Europe in a better world. Matching our defence capabilities to our ambitions and obligations will be a key challenge in the years ahead.

European leaders have unanimously defined the task. It is to transform their militaries into more flexible, mobile forces and enable them to address new threats. That means spending more or spending better. Now, we struggle to sustain less than 5 per cent of our overall military manpower on vital peace-support tasks. This seems a poor return on the Euros 160bn (Pounds 110bn) that the member states between them spend on defence each year. So today in Brussels, EU defence ministers will not only review current military operations. Crucially, as board members of the European Defence Agency, they will also consider how Europe can ensure that a strong defence sector can equip its militaries with the necessary capabilities in the decades to come.

The scale of the transformation required is huge. A radical shift of investment must be made from heavy metal and high explosive to the supporting and enabling capabilities that effective crisis management operations demand. We need the equipment and technology to allow peacekeeping troops to be rapidly deployed, to undertake their tasks with the highest degree of protection and to be resupplied and supported for operations that may last for months. We need the intelligence capabilities to understand what is happening on the ground, not least to avoid civilian casualties, and communications for effective command and control.

The logic of pursuing transformation as a collaborative venture is both operational and economic. Europe's crisis management operations will be multinational; it makes no sense for each contingent to have incompatible equipment. Pooling resources on research, technology development and the acquisition and maintenance of equipment is the only way our armed forces will get interoperable equipment at a price they can afford, and our defence industries will be able to operate on a viable economic scale. That is how the second part of the EDA's mandate can be achieved: the strengthening of Europe's defence technology and industrial base to compete effectively on a global basis with US defence companies. Yet, less than 5 per cent of European countries' defence research and technology budget is spent collaboratively.

It can be done. The new A400M military transport aircraft being built by Airbus is a good example of European member states pooling resources. No individual nation could have done this by itself - but the economic and technological benefits will be widely enjoyed. Yet it took nearly two decades for this project to progress from an idea to a contract.

Today, the EDA will ask ministers whether it is satisfactory for them to be running 23 different national programmes for acquiring new armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), with virtually no co-operation on projects. If it is not, they should encourage collaboration on programmes already underway, form more "user clubs" of countries using the same equipment to save costs and work together with the EDA to ensure that the next generation of AFVs share as much new technology - for example, better protection against the ubiquitous rocketpropelled grenade - and as many systems as possible.

The EDA is the best hope to ensure that defence budgets are spent to better effect. It is ideally positioned to identify the intersection of economic and operational imperatives. It provides both a forum and a catalyst for member states to look at common problems and develop shared solutions. But its success will crucially depend on political will.

Ultimate authority and responsibility for deciding on defence matters rests with the member states. Success will come only if the ministers determine to spend their individual budgets differently. Only they can bring about the necessary pooling of resources and efforts. Europe's governments must rise to the challenge they have set themselves.

The writer is EU high representative for the common foreign and security policy and head of the European Defence Agency